One of the common knocks on the NBA is the league’s predictability and lack of parity. It seems like at the start of every season there only three, maybe four teams with any shot at winning the championship. This huge gap between the haves and the have-nots makes it difficult for teams that aren’t elite to create excitement in their fan base, or, in the case of the Brooklyn Nets, to even create a fan base.
The Nets are a woeful franchise that has bounced around New York and New Jersey since 1967. In 1976, when the ABA and the NBA merged, the then-New Jersey Nets joined the New York Knicks as a New York City metro-area NBA team. In the 42 years since, the Nets have no championships, only two finals appearances and a sad five total division championships.
In 2012 the Nets moved to Brooklyn to become the borough’s first major pro sports team since the beloved Dodgers left. Things didn’t improve much. The Kings County squad did make the playoffs in their first three years, but it came at a horrible price. In what might be the worst NBA trade ever, the Boston Celtics sent aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and two other players, for five Nets and, more importantly, four first-round draft picks between 2014 and 2018.
The farthest that Nets team got was the second round of the playoffs. Once Pierce and Garnett were gone, the wheels totally fell off with no hope of rebuilding, since it would be years before the team got another first-round pick. While the trade turned out horribly, you can understand why it was made. Unlike most expansion teams or teams that move cities, the Nets were entering a market that already had a team. Most basketball fans in Brooklyn were Knicks fans, and not likely to easily switch allegiance. The team felt it had to make a splash fast.
Some people in Brooklyn, including many transplants like me, did become fans, and we have slogged through some pretty awful basketball the last few years. Attending games at the Barclays Center has been a sometimes-surreal experience. Its usually more of a social event than a sports event, and the fans’ basketball IQ is somewhere in the low single digits. This season started off no different than others: the Nets opened with a dismal 8-18 record. But then something happened.
Since that weak start, the Nets have won 16 of their last 21 games, climbed above 500, and into playoff position. The run has included some remarkable comebacks, including the most impressive, an overtime victory over an excellent Houston Rockets team in Texas. The Nets trailed by double digits late in the fourth quarter, but a long distance buzzer beater from Spencer Dinwiddee sent it to the extra frame and Brooklyn got the win 145-142.
That was the game that raised eyebrows and hopes. They haven’t lost since, going into tonight’s matchup against their lowly crosstown rival the Knicks. What’s truly remarkable in an NBA dominated by teams with superstars is that the Nets don’t have any. They might not even have an all-star (D’Angelo Russell is making a late run for it by tearing it up during the winning stretch).
What Coach Kenny Atkinson does have is a gritty young team with solid players like Jarett Allen, Joe Harris, and DeMarre Carroll. That core, along with a gutsy bunch of backups, have kept the Nets in games, and the close ones they were losing early in the season are suddenly turning into wins.
Attendance at the Barclays Center is up, as are ticket prices on StubHub that for the last few years were often cheaper than a couple of Nathan’s hot dogs. The building itself sits at Flatbush and Atlantic, ironically the exact location where in the 1950s Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley wanted to build a new stadium for Da Bums. According to some versions of the story, infamous city planner Robert Moses rejected the location and told O’Malley to go to Queens. Understandably, the owner decided to move across the country rather than be in Queens.
The Nets have a very long way to go before they could ever hope to match the iconic affection that the borough of homes and churches felt for their Dodgers. But surely winning is the best way to grow their fan base, especially with younger fans who were not already Knicks fans. It also doesn’t hurt that the Knicks continue to be a five-alarm dumpster fire disgracing the name of Madison Square Garden.
As good as the team has been lately — and they have arguably been the hottest team in the NBA — it’s still the Nets. Fans know there is every possibility that the team gets routed at home by the Knicks tonight and plummets back to miserable reality. But if not, if the team can keep up its current form or anything close to it, and play some meaningful playoff basketball this year, it could be step the franchise has long been waiting for. And now that the Celtics don’t own their draft choices, there is room to build.
For now, the Nets and their small but hopeful fan base have reason to show up and cheer. It could be the beginning of something beautiful in Brooklyn.